Buffalo at water circa 1904 by Denver Kendrick. Source: Library of Congress

Darkness Over the Plain

The Bison in American History

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are over 28,000 threatened species in the world. But this is hardly the first time our planet has faced the prospect of mass extinction.

In the beginning of the 20th century, America’s flora and fauna were seriously threatened by urban encroachment and over-hunting. And one animal at the center of this struggle was the bison.

So in celebration of World Animal Day, Brian and Nathan explore the history of bison in America. We’ll find out how the bison went from an animal in excess to near extinction and we’ll learn how Madison Grant’s work preserving the bison went hand and hand with his theories on eugenics. Plus, we’ll hear from the Buffalo Representative of the Eastern Shoshone about his efforts to restore the buffalo.

This episode and related resources are funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this {article, book, exhibition, film, program, database, report, Web resource}, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Darkness Over the Plain Lesson Set

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At the beginning of the 19th century, millions of American bison freely roamed the plains. They were an important and sacred part of the lives of Native American tribes. However, in the years following the Civil War, westward expansion from frontiersmen resulted in the rapid decline of the bison population. The expanding railroad system gave settlers unprecedented access to hunting and transporting bison herds. The United States government saw a strategic benefit in allowing overhunting, knowing that it would upend society for Native Americans. As a result, bison were nearly hunted into extinction by the end of the century.

This lesson and corresponding BackStory episode explore the reasons for the decimation of the bison population during the 19th century. It also outlines historical and contemporary efforts to conserve and protect this species. Bison are often used as a positive symbol of the American Great Plains. However, as this lesson examines, the destruction of the bison population also represents darker undercurrents of United States history such as colonization and Manifest Destiny.